With the nation at war in Iraq, it may seem far-fetched to suggest that the preservation of affirmative action at home is vital to long-term national security. But that is precisely what a distinguished group of former military leaders say in a remarkable friend-of-the-court brief supporting the University of Michigan's affirmative-action programs in landmark cases to be heard by the Supreme Court Tuesday.
Their message is clear: "Compelling considerations of national security and military mission justify consideration of race in selecting military officers....
"In the 1960s and 1970s, the stark disparity between the racial composition of the rank and file and that of the officer corps fueled a breakdown of order that endangered the military's ability to fulfill its missions."
Among those who signed the brief were: three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, (Gen. John Shalikashvili, Gen. Henry Shelton, and Adm. William Crowe), former superintendents of the US military and Air Force academies, and 11 retired four-star generals (including Norman Schwarzkopf and Anthony Zinni).
They witnessed the effect that an overwhelmingly white officer corpshas on rank-and-file morale - and they consider it a threat to the military's ability to defend the nation.
Because of the success of affirmative action in the military, it is easy to forget just how segregated the officer corps once was. In 1968, African-American enrollment at West Point and Annapolis was less than 1 percent; as late as 1973, just 2.8 percent of all military officers were African-American. By contrast, during that period, African-Americans constituted as much as 17 percent of the rank and file.
In Vietnam, the consequences of this de facto segregation were devastating. Affirmative action was the only solution. Beginning in the late 1960s, the military aggressively moved to integrate its officer corps. As one Pentagon official cited in the brief put it, "Doing affirmative action the right way is deadly serious for us - people's lives depend on it."
By 1981, blacks and Hispanics made up 7 percent to 10 percent of the student bodies at the three military academies; by 2001, that proportion had risen to 11 percent at West Point, 14 percent at the Air Force Academy, and 15 percent at Annapolis. Overall, minorities (including Asian-Americans and native Americans) now make up nearly 20 percent of all officers.
It is this progress that the Bush administration's assault on affirmative action now threatens. The brief filed by Solicitor General Theodore Olson claims the affirmative-action programs governing both undergraduate and law school admissions at the University of Michigan are unconstitutional because they employ racial quotas and do not utilize available alternatives.
The Bush administration briefstops just short of forbidding any consideration of race in college and professional-school admissions. But its broad definition of quotas and the requirement that universities exhaust every conceivable race-neutral option before taking race into account is intentionally onerous.
If the position taken by the Bush administration on the Michigan case is upheld, it would mean the end of affirmative action, not only at the nation's military academies, but also at hundreds of colleges and universities with the ROTC programs that provide 48 percent of active-duty officers.
The brief submitted by the former military officials categorically rejects the Bush administration's position. It defends race-conscious admissions programs with specific numerical goals both in the academies and in ROTC programs. And, it flatly dismisses the viability of race- neutral alternatives, stating: "There is presently no workable alternative to limited, race-conscious programs to increase the pool of qualified minority officer candidates and establish diverse educational settings for officer candidates."
But above all, these former military leaders reaffirm the indispensability of a racially diverse officer corps to lead today's military - 40 percent of which is made up of minority servicemen and women - to assure "an effective, battle-ready fighting force." The brief insists that affirmative action is "a compelling government interest."
This is an argument that should appeal to a president who prides himself on his commitment to a strong defense.Yet the Bush administration has chosen to ignore the counsel of its most distinguished military veterans.
With the nation now facing a far-flung terrorist threat that constitutes the greatest challenge to its security since the height of the cold war, it may be no exaggeration to say that for the men and women who serve in our armed forces, how the Supreme Court decides the Michigan cases could be a matter of life and death.
• Jerome Karabel is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.